Former USDA Chief of Staff and White House ag adviser Ray Starling, who served under President Trump, and Obama-era Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack engaged in a civil back-and-forth Wednesday to extol the virtues of their particular candidates of choice.

Both were highly complimentary of each other, but were less so of the opposing candidates as they sought to convince members of the United Fresh Produce Association in favor of their party’s candidate.

Starling framed his remarks around what he saw were President Donald Trump’s advantages in staffing and ideological framework.

“There has never been a time — at least not in the modern era — since institutions across the executive branch have included a mass of individuals as accessible, as empathetic, and as knowledgeable about production agriculture as those President Trump has appointed,” said Starling, who left the administration in May 2019. He made specific reference to a handful of appointees at USDA, but also in other entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The Biden campaign would be hard-pressed to tell you that they’re going to improve on the personnel that have had our backs in the Trump administration over the last four years,” he added.

Starling also criticized what he saw as a top-heavy approach to governance during the Obama administration, including the “return of czars to the White House” with heavy influence over the work and thinking of cabinet members and a bevy of regulations that could prove detrimental to ag efforts.

For his part, Vilsack rejected the notion that the White House had undue influence over his work during the last administration.

“I never had a problem talking to President Obama about agriculture … in fact, we always celebrated the fact that during his administration, we had the highest farm income on record, we also had the highest farm exports in record,” he said.

Vilsack also reiterated Biden’s stance that China deserved to be challenged for its unfair trade practices, but that he disagreed with the approach taken by the Trump administration and wanted more countries to be brought into the fold.

“By going it alone, basically what we saw was a big target placed on the back of American agriculture,” Vilsack said. He acknowledged the celebration over ag purchases in the “phase one” trade deal reached after months of negotiations with the Chinese, but said “the problem is that China is buying those products at reduced prices.”

Vilsack also said Biden would work for a stable ag workforce, expanded infrastructure, and “greater transparency in regulatory activities.”

The two presidential candidates are scheduled to debate Tuesday, Sept. 29 in Cleveland. A preliminary list of topics released by the Commission on Presidential Debates does not include any direct references to food and ag policy.

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